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Visual Art: A View of Connoisseurship

A gallery owner’s thoughts on curating, educating and criticism

Jul. 23, 2014
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My great grandfather, a student of George Inness, was a painter of landscapes, portraits and large-format historical and biblical subjects. His twin brother was a sculptor, my grandmother an accomplished painter. I founded Timothy Cobb Fine Arts in 1998 behind closed doors in the Astor Hotel, two floors under the gallery of Alfred Bader, an internationally known dealer and collector, who taught me important things about the fine art business and a lot about connoisseurship. The real estate world maintains its cry of location; in the arts, it’s connoisseurship.

Opening a retail gallery in the Third Ward has been a wonderful experience. There are some interesting things happening in our city on both ends of a scale from 1-10. What is good for one may not be good for another; however, connoisseurship dictates the sublime and the mundane.  Milwaukee is capable of elevating itself consistently toward the “10” on that scale. I’ve met people who are working, as am I, to improve.

What is a connoisseur? Merriam-Webster defines it as 1: Expert; especially: one who understands the details, technique or principles of an art and is competent to act as a critical judge; 2: one who enjoys with discrimination and appreciation of subtleties.

Milwaukee needs good teachers of a connoisseurship void of snobbery. (“Connoisseur” can sound snobby, but it is simply the beautiful, accepted French word.) An ever-growing populace of practicing connoisseurs requires a body of students of all ages. To clarify, I don’t think anyone ever becomes a connoisseur, but rather that one is engaged in a life-long aspiration, pursuit and practice of connoisseurship. Gallerists and artists with studios open to the public should be teachers first, dealers second. Visitors must be open to asking questions about art, and be able to discern if someone is qualified to be of real help. Go beyond looking and cultivate the magnificent world of “seeing.” There are time-honored principles of making good art. Ask the proprietor or docent why he or she thinks something is good. Melding education with the business of art is integral to cultural vibrancy.

As in any city, Milwaukee has its share of poor art as well as the overpriced respectably good, the good and fairly priced, and the underpriced gem. Great art is rare. (Beyond liking it or not, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s St. Francis by Francisco de Zurbarán is an example of a great painting.) It is up to you as a buyer to learn the difference, and to the seller to be forthright regarding their holdings. BEWARE if someone suggests something is a “good investment.” No one can know that—let me say again—no one can know that. This is connoisseurship saying hello to your bank account. The truest value of art is in the activity of making it. “Doing” is the connection between awakened humanity and universal creativity. It is a requirement that people who make art for money know what is good.

Good gallerists are curators.  Curators must be accomplished connoisseurs. What goes into building an exhibition, how artfully is the work exhibited, how do you feel in the space, does it invite you to “see” past just looking? Visit several galleries; make your informed criticism.  Please know this: Because in your view, a certain venue may fall short in one exhibition doesn’t mean you should never go back—just the opposite. Your presence alone is uplifting. Buying what you know is good, can afford and that you love supports the city’s growth.

Insightful, learned, historically based, inspired and well-written art criticism is crucial to any city whose artistic life has not reached and maintained the highest standards of connoisseurship. A good critic by necessity should be a person with credentials and unique talent that supersedes Merriam-Webster’s simple definition. Art criticism requires substantial education in art’s variety and a thirsty bent for discovery. Critics must grow faster than the city they serve. It is an important office.

Gallery Nights/Days/Walks can be fun social events; it’s an opportunity for a night out to see art of all kinds. But don’t wait for a special occasion to go and see what’s happening in the museums and galleries. The practicing connoisseur may or may not have the opportunity to “see” the art if the space is jammed. Visit on a regular day, call ahead for an appointment, bring the kids with their own art in hand and find some common characteristics with what’s there. The next time out, visit a different venue. We can’t and shouldn’t wait for the art teacher to arrange a field trip; Thank them when they do.

At first glance we might like what is there, just as one may like a piece of music on first hearing. In my experience, having grown beyond the trap of just looking, practicing “truly seeing” informs both my buying and selling. Aspire to learn, seek help, ask questions, look at photos and read. Go to the best museums to which you can afford to travel. Milwaukee offers a variety of free things to do and places to visit; take advantage of them. If we are to continue to mature as a vital, artistic city, we all have to work at it. By the way, if it isn’t fun, it ain’t connoisseurship.


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